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The Green Knight  by Le Rouret

33.

            As they rode up the steep slope of the spur Cirien oft turned his gaze upon his friend the Red Knight; the Lord of Amon Din had loudly proclaimed to them his wound was light but ever and anon he would blanch and clutch at his arm.  When he did so Cirien would ask of him: “You are certain, my Lord Aldamir, that you are yet hale enough to continue in this pursuit?”  And ever the Red Knight would harden his face and nod, and Cirien would return shrugging to his task.

            After some time Araval noticed this interchange and pushed his horse between them.  “Aldamir,” he said, his round jolly face grave, “there is no need to so impel yourself into further danger; I see that your wound is painful and perhaps impedes your strength somewhat.”

            “It is of no moment,” Aldamir insisted, laying his hand upon the bloodied bandage.  “To me it is of more import to return Prince Legolas to his father, for I would fain have it written in the annals of Gondor’s history that so fair and mighty a warrior was slain upon the hills of my homeland.”

            “Nor would I wish to read such a thing,” said Hador with a shudder; “O my Lord, please speak not so!  The very thought chills me.”

            “Lest others lay in secret about the trail I should fear no ill of the Prince of Eryn Lasgalen,” said Baranil comfortingly.  Behind him Gimli sat, clutching his strong arms about the Elf’s waist; he was uneasy upon the great dark horse.  “Remember, good Hador, and you, noble Red Knight; Legolas Thranduilion has for years unnumbered fulfilled his father’s orders to secure his lands.  Hador, did you not say Legolas pursued but four horsemen?”

            “I did, but others may lie await in these dark woods,” said Hador, looking about him with somber eyes. 

            “Fear not!” said Hallas from where he was riding behind them.  He had ridden strapped to his horse the entire day but sat straight and tall as he had that morning; he was young and strong and still spoiling for adventure.  He spoke with confidence, for so great was his love and admiration for the Green Knight he did not believe any force in Middle Earth could do the Elf harm.  “For myself I doubt not Lord Legolas has already himself apprehended this traitor, and dealt him blows which have left the turncoat smarting.”

            “One may hope,” said Baranil.  “Good Dwarf, do you let go of me a moment; I am going to go point on foot, to see what I may descry further up the trail.”

            “Very well,” said Gimli nervously as Baranil slid from his horse’s back.  “How I hate the way you Wood Elves ride!  It is bad enough to be upon so tall a steed in a saddle; upon these bare slippery backs I feel all my insecurities rise.”

            “I shall return in a moment,” Baranil promised them, and slipped silently into the trees.

            The others waited for him as the dusk deepened; the sky grew violet and the trees stood black against the dome above them.  The insects buzzed fitfully and there was the low trilling of cicadas from further down the slope, but for some time they heard naught else.  Then in the distance ahead of them they caught the sound of voices, and Araval said:  “Hador!  Go ahead a little ways and see if you can determine whether these are allies speaking, or enemies; I would not want us to be caught unaware.”

            “Yes, my Lord,” said Hador, dismounting; he too disappeared amongst the boles of the trees.  But after a moment he came out again, smiling; he said:  “It is Baranil!  I recognize his fair voice.  Also he is speaking with Malbeth; I would know his peculiar turn of speech anywhere.”

            “Good!” said Aldamir.  “Let us wait here for them then.  Baranil will lead them back to us; let us not become separated in this dark forest.”

            Soon they could hear the crash and crack of horses moving through the thick underbrush, and at last Baranil appeared, leading Mardil’s horse, which limped piteously behind him.  With a cry of dismay Araval leapt from his horse.

            “Where is he?  Where is Lord Mardil?” he demanded, his jolly round face creased with worry.

            “Wounded but alive,” said Baranil, his face grim.  “It is as you feared, good Hador; there was indeed an ambush prepared for the Green Knight!  Take the Silver Knight’s horse, I beg you; we are attempting to move Kaimelas to shelter without injuring him further.  Galás tells me he has not yet regained consciousness since being pierced by an arrow, and I greatly fear we may not bring him back to Thranduil alive.”

            “Legolas!” said Gimli, his face blanching.  “Where is Legolas?”

            “Gone!” came Galás’ voice from the shadows; then with an effort his horse forced its way through the brake and he and Mardil appeared.  Mardil’s head was bare and bound about with a bloodied bandage; also his leg was twisted and he was white with pain.  Galás himself looked unwell, his jerkin soaked in blood and his face pale and weary.  Behind him came the Black Knight upon his own destrier, holding upright the limp form of Kaimelas the Elf, about whose chest was bound a darkened cloth. 

            “What mean you, ‘gone’?” demanded the Dwarf of Galás.  “Where has he taken himself?  What is he doing?  Why have you let him run off like that?”  He paled further and said, before Galás could reply:  “He – he has not fallen, has he?  I beg you, Galás, tell me please that he has not fallen!”

            “He is not fallen!” said Galás shortly.  “And I am well too, I thank you for asking!”

            “Are you much wounded, Galás?” asked Araval anxiously.

            “No more so than an arrow in the side would produce,” said the Elf.  “Of all of us I fear the most for Kaimelas here.  Arrows in one’s side prove to be vexatious indeed, but an arrow in one’s chest is in most cases fatal.”

            “Let me see,” said Cirien dismounting.

            They gently lay Kaimelas down upon the earth and Cirien examined him, his face grave.  “This is quite serious,” he said, “and I do not believe you ought to have moved him at all.  Nay, my Lord Malbeth, do not attempt to lift him!  Each time you do you jostle the wound and damage him further.  He must lie here for a while until the bleeding has stopped.”

            “It is not so bad now,” said Malbeth.

            “He still bleeds within,” said Cirien, “and that is the worst place to bleed, for there is no way for us to stop it.  Make him as comfortable as you can, my Lord; we must keep him here for the night.”

            “Perhaps so,” said Baranil, “but we must also pursue my Lord Prince.  Know you where he has gone, good Malbeth?”

            “I do,” said the Black Knight, “though Lord Legolas instructed me to bring his kinsmen to Prince Faramir and King Thranduil.”

            “I agree with Cirien that Kaimelas should not be moved right away,” said Baranil.  “Lord Araval, will you have Hador build a fire here, to drive away the chill?  And then perhaps one of us should ride down into the valley to inform our lords and betters of what has happened.”

            “But what did happen?” demanded Gimli.  “Where is Legolas?”

            “We were ambushed by archers,” said Galás, dropping stiffly from his horse’s back.  “Kaimelas’ and Legolas’ horses were both slain, and Lord Mardil’s wounded.  Kaimelas was shot in the chest, and I in the side, and Mardil thrown down the embankment, and his leg broken.  After slaying the archers Legolas went off in pursuit of the Lion alone.”

            “And you let him?” raged the Dwarf.  “I did not think Malbeth or Mardil would defy him but I expected better of you, Galás!”

            “I am not in the habit of disobeying my Lord,” said Galás shortly.  “I may tease and exasperate him but unto me his word is law.  When he tells me to go, I go.”

            “Even when he runs to death and ruin?” sputtered Gimli.

            “O he will probably not die, good Gimli!” said Baranil comfortingly.  “Look!  Lord Malbeth has his armour strapped upon the back of his destrier’s cruppers.  Lord Legolas will move all the swifter that way.”

            “You let him run off without his armour!” cried Gimli, nearly falling from Baranil’s horse in his agitation.  “He has no protection; he will surely be wounded, or worse!”

            “Think you so?” said Hallas in surprise.  “I should have thought the Green Knight would prove the deadlier enemy, allowed speed and silence in this manner.”

            “Well, if he should be slain it is up to Galás here to explain it to Bandy,” said Gimli angrily.  “All right then, who is come with me after him?”

            “If Gimli has no objections I shall certainly go,” said Baranil; “I promised my Lord King I would look after him, and as Legolas’ words are to Galás my Lord’s will is irreproachable.”

            “I shall go,” said Hallas.

            “And I,” said Araval and Aldamir at once.

            “I also desire to go,” said Cirien, “but who shall stay with the wounded, and who shall go to inform our lords of what has passed?”

            “I shall descend to the valley, with my Lord’s permission,” said Hador.  “I do not fear the darkness, and my hackney and I shall make swift work of it.  I shall go forthwith to Lord Faramir and King Thranduil and give them full account of our doings.”

            “That is well,” said Araval smiling; “you have fine woodcraft and I know you will not mislay your way in this forest.  Go with my blessing, my esquire.”

  “But who shall stay?” asked Cirien.  “We need at least one knight to stay with Galás and Mardil, for we do not know for certain all the insurgents have been driven from these woods.”

            “I am not so bad,” protested Galás; “but give to me my bow and I shall make a fair stand.”  He looked contemplatively at Mardil.  “Speaking of standing, shall I help you dismount, so you may sit for a while, Lord Mardil?”

            “Are you yourself hale enough to so aid me?” asked Mardil.

            Galás grinned.  “Perhaps not!” he said.  “But we should make a grand tumble at any rate!”

            “Hador,” said Araval, and nodding Hador assisted Mardil off the horse, though he was smiling as well.

            “That settles it!” said Baranil.  “If Mardil and Galás cannot even dismount without falling we must needs leave in charge over them some great and mighty knight, that could protect and aid them; also it were preferable to have someone nearby to see to Kaimelas’ needs should he awake.”

            “I shall remain, as was charged me by Lord Legolas,” said Malbeth reluctantly, “though I am unhappy to do so; rather would I ride to his rescue, but he asked me to look after his kin and mine and I would fain gainsay him.”

            “Then we shall be perfectly safe, O Black Knight!” said Galás with a grin.  “With your sword to protect us we need fear no ill, neither from knight nor nightingale.”

            “I commend you for your selfless bravery,” said Baranil; “I warn you, however, that with this one here – “  he gestured to Galás – “You will suffer such pangs of inner turmoil as to make the heat and peril of battle seem effortless and agreeable.”

            “What matters that?  Let us go!” said Gimli impatiently.  “Each moment that passes as you bicker back and forth casts my dear friend further into danger.”

            So they left Kaimelas, Galás, and Mardil under the guard of the Black Knight and bid Hador of Tarlang safe passage, and followed the trail back into the woods.  Ever it grew darker and the stars in the obscured sky above them shone the brighter.  Their horses crushed beneath their hooves the fragrant leaves of low pine and rosemary, and at one point the smelt about them the pungent odor of lavender.  The going was rough for the underbrush very scrubby and thick, and often their guide had need to wind about brakes and stands of thick-grown weed, that their laden horses could not penetrate.  As they went it seemed to them Baranil reflected the white lights above them, and his eyes in the darkness glowed.  Yet the gloom affected him not one whit; he bent over his horse’s neck to descry the marks of passage upon the ground beneath him, and rode with growing confidence up the slope of the mountain.  After some time had passed Gimli whispered:

            “Baranil!  You are certain you are following his trail?”

            “Yes!” said the Elf.  “And do not, I pray you, cling to me so tightly; you are very strong, and you press upon me so tight I am finding it difficult to breathe properly.”

            “I beg your pardon!” said Gimli, loosening his grip somewhat; and they went on in silence once more.

            After some time the mortals’ eyes could see glinting in the dim light metal in great lumped masses; Cirien’s destrier shied, and he pulled the dithering animal in a tight circle to keep him from bolting.  Baranil said, “Blood!” and urged his nervous horse forward.

            In the clearing lay the bodies of two horses, one clad in richly verdigrised armour, though very little of its splendid ornamentation could be seen in the darkness.  Gimli with a cry pointed and said:  “Look!  It is Hatchet!  O the poor stubborn maddening beast; I did not believe until now he had fallen, but seeing him in his marvelous shaffron lying there I am cut to the quick.  How angry Legolas must be!  And how sad our poor Bandobras shall be when I tell him; Hatchet was such a pet of his.”

            “The Lady Éowyn shall also feel within her the sharp pangs of disappointment,” said Cirien, “for I heard she wished to use him as stud within her own herd, to so improve the strength of the hindquarters of the foals next year.”

            “Brytta of Rohan shall be pleased though,” said Araval.

            “No doubt,” said Aldamir smiling at him.  “My friend, is there no circumstance, no matter its weight and disappointment, from which you are able to glean some small spark of hope?  I believe if I told you Middle Earth would come to a fiery end on the morrow you should only remark that we at least would all die warm.”

            “Well, that is true; we would, would we not?” said Araval innocently.

            They passed the dead horses and came upon the bodies of the archers.  Here Baranil dismounted once more and examined the ground.  “Legolas went into the woods here,” he said; “I can see the marks of his bare feet upon this bit of bloodied earth.  Then he passed up into the branches of the trees where we are unable to follow.”  He turned and looked back to them contemplatively.  “Well, at least you are unable to follow, my lords all; I of all of you am proficient enough to trail him.  Wish you to await me here while I go in pursuit of our truant prince, or do you desire instead to follow this trail, which no doubt is the longer route taken by the traitor, and meet me at its end?  I cannot promise you the objective shall be to your liking, but I at least will be able to move more swiftly than you.  Or if you like, I shall remain with you to track the trail of the enemy, for I see underlying the footprints of these men the marks of hooves heading deeper into the woods.”

            “Do you hear aught to tell you of what may be the fate of our friend?” asked Gimli.  “For I know you Wood Elves hear and see better than we; perhaps he is close enough for you to tell whether he lives or no.”

            “I have neither heard, smelt, seen nor sensed Legolas save for the faint traces of his passing some hours hence,” said Baranil; “either he is too far away for my senses to descry, or too silent and still.”

            “Say not that!” cried Hallas.  “You quite make my heart to turn cold.”

            “My prince is woodsman enough to lie quietly so that even a tracker such as Meivel could not hear him,” said Baranil; “however as we have been speaking quite loudly he is sure to have heard us by now, should he be nearby.  Well, gentles all, what say you?  Do I leave you here to follow his path, or accompany you up the trail there on the heels of the chief of miscreants?  Lord Aldamir, these are your woods; I hold by your decision.”

            Aldamir glanced over at Cirien.  “The Yellow Knight is wiser than I,” he said; “I shall defer to his acumen.  What think you, O knight of Langstrand?”

            “Were the choice mine I should ask this good Elf to go and go swiftly,” said Cirien, “and we shall follow the marks of the Lion so that, slow though we be, we may come upon our Elvish compatriots and come at last to their aid.  Is that advice to your liking, my friend?”

            “It is,” said Aldamir.  “Go you then, good Baranil, and with our blessings.”

            “And hope of good hunting too,” added Araval.

            “Tell Legolas to keep out of trouble,” called Gimli after Baranil had slipped into the thicket.  “He is so reckless; I am always surprised he does not get injured that often, for with his careless and rackety ways he ought to have died several times over by now.”

            “He will grow wiser with age, good Dwarf,” said Baranil with a low laugh from the darkness, and then he was gone.

            “Let us press on, my lords!” said Cirien.  “Night ages and with it hope dwindles.”

            It was now so dark they could not see the tracks they were following, and Cirien had need to dismount and lead his destrier, crouching down over the earth until he could see the marks of the churned dirt that told the tale of the fleeing horses.  At one point he paused, examining closely some great scufflings and broken branches; finally he shook his head and said:  “I can only see that something large has fallen upon these bushes here, but what it might be I cannot guess; whatever it was it is gone now.  I know not the riddle behind these signs!  But as no one is here we must needs continue in ignorance.”

            The stars spread their milky banner above them, glowing and twinkling around the dark brushes of pine needles and splayed leaves; it was now nearly impossible to see their trail, and they followed Cirien blindly, hoping he could tell the imprint of a horse’s hoof from the stray marks upon the rocky earth and trusting to his judgment.  And ever the air grew colder and more fragrant as they climbed, until at last they reached a bend in the path that overlooked the valley below them.  They paused to rest their horses and looked down at the hundreds of fires that burned thereupon, unable from this height to discern the dark masses of living people but comforted by the sight.  “Faramir and Thranduil are taking care of your folk at least,” said Araval to Aldamir finally, and then they pressed on until a curve in the trail plunged them back into darkness.

            Baranil followed not the physical manifestations of his prince’s trail, for that would in the darkness have been too arduous a task for even his Elven eyes; Legolas had fled swiftly yet erratically, casting about for scent and sound freshly laid, the traces of which had faded too greatly to be of any use to Baranil.  Instead in the stillness Baranil used his senses of smell and hearing, feeling from the trees themselves the traces of the other Elf, and finding from them the assurance of his Lord’s passage he set off as the woods sloped sharply upwards.  After some time he cast about, smelling kin upon the cool damp air, mingled also with the smells of mortal men, cold dirt, and hard stone.  He paused, listening; after a moment he heard a light voice calling to him in song, and with a smile he dropped down from the pine which bore him and strode through the underbrush towards the sound.

            Sure enough when he came into the clearing he saw Legolas, seated upon the ground in his arming doublet and breeches, his hair shining silver in the starlight.  He smiled at Baranil, arresting his song, and rising to his feet went to embrace his friend.

            “Well met!” he said.  “What kept you?  I have been waiting for you since midnight.”

            “The mortals impeded me somewhat,” said Baranil, answering his kiss; “they are following up around the side of the mountain and should be here shortly.”

            “Good,” said Legolas.  He paused.  “How is Kaimelas?”

            “Not well,” said Baranil, “though we are waiting until tomorrow to move him again.  Malbeth of Celos is guarding him, Galás, and Mardil further down.  Hador Araval’s esquire is gone to the valley to meet with Lord Faramir and our Lord King, and the rest are following.”

            “How goes the battle?  It is over then?”

            “It was very nearly finished when we left,” said Baranil; “there remained only the captain of this army of miscreants.  Is that he?”  He gestured to a bundle at the entrance of the cave.

            “Yes,” said Legolas.  “He would not be silent, but raved and wept and argued with me, disturbing the sleep of Lord Orodreth and his niece; even tying a gag about his mouth would not keep him still.  I dragged him out here so that his poor prisoners could get some rest.”

            “It was Eradan then?” asked Baranil, bending over and peering down at him.  “How peacefully he sleeps!  Though I am certain those contusions upon his head have not a little to do with it.”

            “He was very noisy,” sighed Legolas.  “I have been obliged to hit him upon the head at least four times.  Each time he awakes I tell him I shall not be constrained to strike him again should he be still, but the fear of hanging is upon him, and he thrashes and squirms and tries to shout so that I cannot hear the voices of the forest, and I am obliged to silence him once more.”

            “That does not seem very safe,” said Baranil doubtfully.

            “O it is quite safe!” Legolas assured him.  “At first I hit him with the pommel of my sword, but I have been hitting him these past few times with a rock, which is much safer.”

            “It is safer to be hit upon the head with a rock, than with the pommel of a sword?” asked Baranil in surprise.

            “Safer for my sword, at least,” laughed Legolas.  “I care not about the condition of this scoundrel’s skull.”

            “Well you seem to have things well in hand then,” said Baranil; “with your leave, my Lord, I shall take me one of these poor beasts tied up here, and go to find the others.  Have they been watered?”
            “You are as bad as my Lady Mother!” said Legolas.  “Yes, I watered them and let them eat some sweet grass over in that clearing there.  They have had a nice rest, and that chestnut mare in particular seems eager to go for a little run.”

            Sure enough, the chestnut mare was more than willing to bear Baranil back down the path, and sure of step and fleet of foot she and the Elf sought out the others. They greeted him with relief, and Gimli in particular was overjoyed to see him and plied him instantly with questions.

            “Yes, I have seen Lord Legolas!  Yes, he has captured Eradan!  And no, he is not injured!” said Baranil laughing.  “He stands watch over the Lion and guards all against the oppressor – not so great a task at this point, as the oppressor is bound, gagged, and unconscious.”

            He led them back up to the cave where Legolas waited.  Gimli at once tumbled from Baranil’s horse and rushed up to him, unsure in his relief and agitation whether to embrace him or to scold him.  To the others’ amusement he seemed bent upon doing both at once.  “Running off on your own!” he growled, his arms about Legolas’ waist; “Discarding my father’s armour!  Rushing headlong into danger!  Aulë, Legolas, when I get you back to your tent I am tying you to the center pole for a week!  I’ll tell Bandy to feed you and give you wine but under no circumstances is he to unbind you; I tell you I cannot take much more of watching you hurl yourself into trouble like this!”

            “There, there,” laughed Legolas, patting Gimli upon his shoulder.  “Do not squeeze so; you quite press the breath from me.  It is over; the Goat has captured the Lion.  Look!”

            The other knights were gathered about Eradan’s vast still form, looking down at him.  Hallas who still sat lashed to his horse said, “Eradan of Linhir!  So my father was right; many times have I heard him cursing his perfidy.”

            “Lady Dirhael stirs within,” said Legolas, giving Araval a secret wink.  “Do you wish to greet her sitting astride your destrier, good Hallas, or shall we unbind you?  At any rate the horses need to be looked to; whatever you decide your mount shall be fed and watered before we go anywhere else tonight.”

            Upon Hallas’ face was a look of deep consternation; he greatly desired to be unhorsed, for he was very uncomfortable, but to greet his former betrothed seated upon the ground unable to stand was not a prospect with which he could look to with great equanimity.  At last he realized he could meet her either already seated or have her watch him as he suffered the ignominy of being unseated by others; he said with shaking voice:  “I shall dismount, if there is any here who may aid me.”

            The others all dismounted, and Cirien and Baranil began to lead the horses into the clearing to cool grass and fresh water; Gimli and Legolas unstrapped the young man’s legs and helped him slide from his destrier’s back to the earth.  “It is uncivil and boorish to remain seated when a lady approaches,” said Legolas, helping him limp over to a boulder.  “Sit you here, and grasp this sapling with your hand; when she arrives you have simply to pull yourself to your feet and hold yourself upright using it as a steady crutch.”

            “Thank you, your Highness!” said Hallas.  He attempted to straighten his surcoat, and nervously checked his hair, which all day had been obscured by his helm now lying upon the grass.  “Is she hurt?” he asked anxiously.

            “Nay!” said Legolas; “well, save in spirit only; she has been greatly frightened.  But now you are here to banish her fears, good Hallas, as all lovers do when they meet with their heart’s lady.”

            “She is no longer my heart’s lady,” said Hallas firmly, but his words were belied by the look in his eyes when Dirhael appeared in the starlight.  Though her yellow gown, bleached white in the darkness, was torn and dirty she was tall and lovely to look upon, her black hair falling about her shoulders and her wan face fair.  Hallas tried to speak, but the words caught in his throat and he could only stand gripping the sapling beside him and watching her with a kind of wounded yearning.  She approached him hesitantly, her eyes contrite and sad, then perhaps seeing some of the longing in his own face she gave an incoherent cry and threw herself into his waiting arms.  The other knights exchanged glances and moved quietly away to give them some privacy, but in truth those two young lovers would probably not have noticed even had the entire court of the White Tower been present.  And Legolas watched them from the shadows beneath the trees, his gray eyes sparkling, a smile of satisfaction upon his face.

 





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